This International Women’s Day, the importance of gender diversity in the workplace will take centre stage – and rightly so. However, diversity spans much more broadly than gender. The likes of ethnicity, culture, age, religion also stand front-of-mind when thinking about diversity, but what about neurodiversity?
Well, what is neurodiversity? According to Thomas Armstrong, author of The Power of Neurodiversity, the term ‘neurodiversity’ refers to the infinite range of differences in individual human brain function and behavioural traits. In other words, it is the diversity of human minds and infinite neurocognitive functions of the human species.
There is no ‘normal’ or standard functioning of human brain – this is just a construct of societal norms that have pigeonholed people into what is normal versus what is not. Instead, Nick Walker describes neurodivergent people as those who have a thinking style at the edges of what would be described as neurotypical. Previously, these alternative thinking styles would be classed as disorders, and the focus would be on treating the disorder rather than trying to understand and appreciate the often-unique capabilities of such individuals.
This leads to what has been labelled the Neurodiversity Paradigm. Walker describes it as a perspective on neurodiversity that:
- Makes neurodiversity a natural and valuable form of human diversity
- Reinforces the idea that there is no one normal or heathy type of brain or mind
- Is similar to the social dynamics relating to other types of diversity (e.g. ethnicity, gender, culture)
The most important aspect of the neurodiversity paradigm is that, when fully embraced, it can act as a source of creative potential. This has already been demonstrated by large multinational businesses such as Microsoft, JP Morgan, EY, Google and SAP, who have taken advantage of the fact that nearly 10% of the population is, in some form, neurodivergent. Such companies are running ‘neurodiversity at work’ initiatives that recognise the upside of utilising the specific capabilities of their neurodivergent hires.
Types of neurodivergent people
People who share a similar type of neurodivergence form a ‘neurominority’. However, for each one of them, the neurodivergence is their own, meaning it’s an innate state linked to their own personality and how they perceive and relate to the world.
In addition, a lot of people who are neurodivergent may not have had a formal diagnosis, which means that there is potentially a significantly larger number of employees who can be part of the neurominority.
Common examples of neurominorities include people with autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Whilst it’s good to understand what form of neurodivergence people can have, it’s important to avoid putting people in boxes by using standard labels such as “they are/he or she is autistic” or “they are/he or she is on the spectrum”.
As I mentioned above, no two people are the same, hence it’s important to avoid generalised or simplistic labelling, especially in the work setting.
How do we make it work in our company?
There are many specialised associations and bodies that focus on neurodiversity; one of the most prominent is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR and people development, with over 160,000 members around the world.
The CIPD has developed a ‘Guide for Neurodiversity at Work’ to assist HR professionals and business leaders in learning more about neurodiversity and how to support neurodivergent employees to be comfortable and successful.
There are some detailed and very useful tips in the CIPD Guide for businesses to build an inclusive neurodiverse workplace, such as:
- Senior leadership taking neurodiversity seriously and talking about it and sponsoring projects that create such an inclusive environment
- Creating a neurodiversity awareness training programme across the whole business to ensure all employees are equipped with knowledge and practical tips to become comfortable talking about neurodiversity
- Making adjustments to the working environment (such as office lighting, noise levels or specialised equipment) to ensure that neurodivergent employees with sensory sensitivities can perform at their best
- Providing support to neurodivergent employees in the form of line manager, HR or peer mentoring or buddying as well as the ability to use outside-of-work mentors, such as job coaches, family and friends
Why it is important to understand neurodiversity?
There is a growing body of scientific research pointing to increases in diagnosing autism, dyslexia and ADHD. Although some authors and media talk about epidemics, this is rather due to the recent improved reporting and diagnostics practices. In any case, it’s estimated that neurominorities represent a large percentage of the overall global population, likely exceeding 10%.
Given this number, it’s important that employers start taking neurodiversity seriously by taking steps to ensure proper inclusion of neurodivergent employees. The benefits of which will be wide-ranging; diversity of thought, creativity, and a different way of approaching problems can add to company’s productivity and increase their competitiveness in the marketplace.
Take ADHD as an example – in his article for Forbes Magazine, Zachariah Booker describes it as a superpower. He surveyed a number of CEOs and concluded that ADHD is prevalent among business leaders, and that the facets of ADHD (such a restlessness and impulsiveness) can become a strength when managed the right way.
Another example would be employees with autism, who have proven to be successful in roles that require close attention to detail or enhanced analytical thinking, amongst other things.
To be truly diverse, we need to promote all diversity. With the benefit of insight from all minds and all backgrounds, only then can we unlock our full potential.